It’s interesting how social media and the ever increasing allure of being constantly connected to others through the internet and public forums has exponentially intensified controversies that may have existed before, but on a much smaller scale. For example, last night I came home from work and said to my mom, “I have an idea for a new blog post. I’m going to write about the breastfeeding controversy.”
My mom’s reply was, “I didn’t even know there was a breastfeeding controversy.”
The truth is, as of maybe a year ago, I didn’t either. However, a couple of significant things have happened since then. The first and most important, I believe, is that I gave birth to my first child and subsequently joined the ranks of breastfeeding mothers. Another significant manifestation is the constantly growing conversation that has been brought to the public through blogs, media, and even Facebook posts.
I realized how big this controversy really is last night as a simple post on breastfeeding quickly escalated to a heated debate between Facebook friends. I started to do some more digging and formulated in my mind three important questions that I would like to address.
- In the course of American history, when did it become unacceptable for a woman to breastfeed in public?
- Why does seeing a woman breastfeed make people so uncomfortable?
- Is it really that important of a controversy? Can’t women just suck it up and stay at home? Or find some alternative to evade the discomfort of others?
Each question is a bit complex, and I do not claim to have the “true” answers. But here are some of my ideas (backed up by some research).
When did it become unacceptable for a woman to breastfeed in public?
This question is pretty tricky. From what I’ve read, observed, and researched, it seems like support of public breastfeeding has fluctuated throughout modern history. I have no supporting documentation, but I believe public tolerance for breastfeeding strongly correlates with the availability of breastfeeding alternatives. When a woman had no option but to breastfeed she could either stay in her house all day long (literally a stay-at-home mother), or go about her business and breastfeed when needed in the public sphere.
When the United States first gained independence at the end of the 18th century, and well into the beginning and middle of the 19th century, I have found that there was much more public support of breastfeeding.
In her book, Breastfeeding Rights in the United States, Karen Kedrowski comments,
“...maternal breastfeeding became almost an emblem of new democratic ideal, as images of ‘nature’ were linked with equality, the rejection of decadent, aristocratic ‘culture,’ and the rising health and wealth of the middle class of the young nation.”
Art where women are depicted breastfeeding in public was not uncommon during this time. However, things began to change as the 19th century came to a close.
According to the article A History of Infant Feeding,
“In 1865, chemist Justus von Liebig developed, patented, and marketed an infant food, first in a liquid form and then in a powdered form for better preservation...By 1883, there were 27 patented brands of infant food...As formulas evolved and research supported their efficacy, manufacturers began to advertise directly to physicians...By the 1940s and 1950s, physicians and consumers regarded the use of formula as a well known, popular, and safe substitute for breastmilk. Consequently, breastfeeding experienced a steady decline until the 1970s.”
I spoke with my grandmother last night in doing some personal research on breastfeeding trends. She is the oldest woman I currently have contact with (she’s not even that old, born in 1937). She was breastfeeding her first child in the early 1950s and subsequently breastfed six more children until the 1970s. When I asked her if she breastfed in public she replied that while she did, she always covered up. She also replied that breastfeeding was not really encouraged when she was a young mother, and that people relied more on formula and bottle-feeding.
There was a resurgence of breastfeeding popularity in the 1970s, but it seems that trend has since reversed in contemporary times. Public opinion on women breastfeeding in public seems to be tolerance at best, and that is only if women are overly discreet and covered.
It seems to me then, that the general acceptance and even celebration of public breastfeeding all but disappeared with the introduction of formula.
Why does breastfeeding make people so uncomfortable?
The arguments I have heard against a woman breastfeeding in public have varied, but normally have similar roots. Most people I have talked to have stated that it doesn’t matter what she is doing, a woman “exposes” herself when she breastfeeds. I read comments of people who have compared breastfeeding to publicly urinating or running around naked.
According to a study done by two Canadian geographers, P.K. Spurles and J. Babineau,
“The roots of these restrictive attitudes are different for men and women. Whereas women tended to express concern about disruptions to social relations, even with unknown others, men tended to express discomfort related to fears of being perceived as deviant [a pervert]. Statements about appropriate places for breastfeeding were expressed in a rhetoric of rights and legislation in only 1 instance; concerns for the infant’s and breastfeeding woman’s physical needs were addressed only when affirming breastfeeding in public or social contexts.”
In my personal investigation, I have yet to speak to one woman who opposes public breastfeeding, mother or not. (Although I’m sure it wouldn’t be too hard to find one.) Personally, before becoming a breastfeeding mother, seeing women breastfeed in public was strange, but not overly offensive or uncomfortable for me.
Yet nearly every man I have ever talked to is strongly opposed to public breastfeeding, unless a woman is adequately covered, in which case some leniency is expressed. Some theories I have heard about men being so uncomfortable with exposed breasts, even minimal exposure for breastfeeding, is the sexualization and objectification of women. Their objections, “appear to indicate a widespread discomfort with the biological function of an organ that has acquired sexual connotations in American culture” (Kedrowski).
According to Karen Kedrowski,
“The evidence clearly seems to suggest that the contemporary fascination with the breast as a sexual object reflects a culturally determined, rather than a biologically inherent, obsession. Within Western societies, Marilyn Yalom has traced what she sees as a shift from the sacred breast, celebrated in both prehistoric and Christian medieval cultures, to increasingly prevalent representations of an erotic breast beginning in the Renaissance, frankly depicted as the desired object of the male sexual gaze. The idea that the breast can mean different things, or, at the least, that different dimensions of its meaning can be accentuated, during different historical eras seems to reinforce this emphasis on the culturally determined, rather than the biologically based, meaning of the breast.”
While the sexualized nature associated with the breast may play some part in people's awkwardness to breastfeeding, I do not believe it is the principal explanation.
I talked briefly with several men last night, and all but one opposed breastfeeding in public. That one was my husband. My husband grew up and lived in Peru up until last year, when he came to the United States (to marry this awesome American girl, haha). In Peru, along with every other Latin American country I have lived in, breastfeeding in public, uncovered, is normal and widely accepted.
So I asked myself, “Do hispanic men generally not sexually objectify women as much? Do they respect women more?” My personal experience in these countries (I’ve lived in Mexico, Honduras, and Peru) would indicated otherwise. In fact, I have felt more sexually objectified from 10 minutes of walking down a street in Honduras than I have in my entire life.
So why this distinct difference between these cultures in tolerance for public breastfeeding? I concluded that is has to do with exposure and cultural conditioning. When I asked my husband if he knew if women generally covered up breastfeeding or if they breastfed a lot in public in Peru, he just shrugged.
“I don’t know,” he said, “It’s not like I really paid attention. It’s just something normal that women do.”
On the other hand, when living in other countries, public breastfeeding has always caught my attention. I think this is because of cultural conditioning. I never see women breastfeed in public in the United States. Growing up, I don’t even really remember seeing my mom breastfeed my own brothers and sister, though I’m sure she did and I was pretty young. The point is, the less we see it, the more of a novelty it becomes, and the more unacceptable. It is not a question of right and wrong at this point. Historically, even the most religious zealots found nothing wrong with a woman’s somewhat exposed breast in order to feed her child. Though possibly influenced by the sexualization of the breast and the sexual objectification of women, it is more a question of the cultural condition of both men and women in the United States.
Okay, last question. Kudos to you if you’re still reading up to this point.
Is it really that important of a controversy? Can’t women just suck it up and stay at home? Or find some alternative to evade the discomfort of others?
If there is one thing all professionals in the medical and scientific fields all agree on, it is the supremacy of breast milk to that of formula or other breast milk alternatives. According to the article, Breastfeeding: social, economic and medical considerations, “Even though awareness of the benefits of breastfeeding is widespread, the motivation to breastfeed is not.”
According to S. Matthew Stearmer in his Masters’ dissertation on women breastfeeding in public,
“As long as the woman is behaving like a man she is typically allowed any space she chooses. Mothers however potentially create private space out of any public sphere they occupy by nature of how they chose to use the space. If a mother chooses only to shop then public space remain simply public. But if her baby is in need of food there is a breach in the de facto nature of that space. The mother who chooses to breastfeed calls into question the use of the space and her action requires a response to the changing definition of the space. Breastfeeding then creates a quandary over public vs. private space. Unless women are to be excluded from the public sphere while they are breastfeeding, society must begin to recognize its place in public. Even without considering women in the workforce, women are always in the public sphere. They work, serve, shop, recreate, lobby, etc., all in public space. This work cannot halt just because a woman has had a baby and must now feed it. As a society we need all of a mother's contributions, during the whole of her life time and the whole of her life experience. However, her ability to fully engage in life is limited by society's acceptance of her breastfeeding in public.”
So, yes, it is important. And yes, your opinion does matter. I, personally, have no problem breastfeeding uncovered in front of others. But the opinion of others matters to me, and so out of respect I try not to do so. I’ve tried the whole cover thing. It is a LOT harder than it looks. And I refuse to lock myself in a gross stall of a public bathroom in order to feed my baby.
According to A Qualitative Study of Attitudes Toward Public Breastfeeding Among Young Canadian Men and Women,
“Lack of public support and approval is cited by breastfeeding women as factors that discourage breastfeeding, and familiarity through exposure to breastfeeding is associated with increased approval and intent to breastfeed one’s own children. As such, understanding the content, in addition to the magnitude and direction, of public attitudes about breastfeeding is significant.”
In talking to some male co-workers last night, I asked one, “Would your opinion about breastfeeding in public change if you knew that ‘all 50 states have passed legislation that either explicitly allows women to breastfeed in public, or exempts them from prosecution for public indecency or indecent exposure for doing so’?” His answer: No.
Then I asked, “Would it change if your wife was an emotional wreck after giving birth, struggling with breastfeeding in the first place, and then on top of everything the blanket she is trying to keep over your baby’s head keeps falling off her shoulder?” Again: No.
So listen, I am well aware that this blog may do nothing to change the opinions of people. But learning more about breastfeeding, its importance in the lives of infants, and the effect of public attitudes has changed my opinion, so I’m assuming it might help others. So spread the word! Knowledge is power!
Boyer, Kate. “The way to break the taboo is to do the taboo thing” breastfeeding in public and citizen-activism in the UK. Health and Place, 2011, Vol.17(2), pp.430-437, 2011
Kedrowski, Karen M. Breastfeeding rights in the United States. Westport, Conn.: Praeger Publishers, 2008, xiii, 175 p.; 25 cm.
Spurles, PK; Babineau, J. A Qualitative Study of Attitudes Toward Public Breastfeeding Among Young Canadian Men and Women. Journal Of Human Lactation, 2011, Vol.27(2), pp.131-137, 2011
Stearmer, S. Matthew. A European case study on the intersection between public and private space : increasing breastfeeding rates in a modern world. Thesis (M.S.)--Brigham Young University. Dept. of Geography, 2010., 2010, vii, 120 p.: maps; 28 cm.
Stevens, Emily E. History of Infant Feeding. J Perinat Educ. 2009 Spring; 18(2): 32–39. (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2684040/)
Tan, KL. Breast feeding: social, economic and medical considerations. Ann Acad Med Singapore. 1983 Oct;12(4):609-13.